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I've got a pound of ground beef in the refrigerator that I need to use by tonight, and have been eating pasta and hamburgers in unusual abundance lately so my usual standbys of ragù and patties are pretty much off the table.

While searching for recipe ideas I happened upon these barbecue beef cups - a bit heavy on the store-bought ingredients, but very convenient and looks palatable. However, one of the reviewers pointed out that, even with various savoury additions, the final product came out more or less like a sloppy joe, and I'd prefer to have something less... sloppy.

In other words I'd like to make one of these so that the filling holds its shape and doesn't start leaking after the first bite. On the other hand, I also don't want it to come out like a fruit tart with the consistency of jelly. I keep thinking of those Jamaican beef patties you buy in stores and the consistency of the filling; it's relatively moist, but dry/solid enough to stay in the patty.

Can I accomplish this, preferably without the aid of exotic hydrocolloids? I was thinking of mixing in an egg, but I'm not sure how well that would work or if it would be better to use the whole egg or just the yolk. Tomato paste is another "thickener" that would seem to work well with this type of recipe, but might not get it thick enough before ruining the taste. And of course I have various starches and baking ingredients but I worry that too much of those will just turn it into jelly.

Any tips/suggestions?

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6 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

A little cornstarch should, if you add it with the bbq sauce, make it just thick enough to cling together a little better.

I'd say make a slurry of say 1/2c water, 1/4c bbq sauce, 1tsp cornstarch and add it to your ground beef. Let it cook down (I'm basically thinking how taco packets work here) until it's close to where you want it; continued heat in the oven should finish binding.

Or skip the bbq sauce, use dry herbs and spices mostly with just a tiny dab to bind it together.

Also you just made me want a patty, you awful man.

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I'm not entirely convinced that cooked ground beef would really bind without a decent amount of sauce (or egg or some other binder), so instead of leaking out it would sort of fall out. It might not need the whole half-cup though. How much corn starch would you recommend for something like this? A teaspoon maybe? –  Aaronut Oct 12 '10 at 22:56
    
I'd say make a slurry of say 1/2c water, 1/4c bbq sauce, 1tsp cornstarch and add it to your ground beef. Let it cook down (I'm basically thinking how taco packets work here) until it's close to where you want it; continued heat in the oven should finish binding. –  daniel Oct 12 '10 at 23:01
    
So I tried this, after adjusting the ratios a bit (less water) and adding various other flavours; it worked OK. Reducing it was actually very important and I probably should have waited even longer (I did it on medium heat for about 20 minutes). I also used a mesh sieve to strain all the loose fat before filling the cups. This recipe clearly needs an emulsifier; I'm thinking that an egg might have actually killed two birds with one stone, but too late for that now. I cannot even imagine how gross this would have been just following the original recipe. –  Aaronut Oct 13 '10 at 1:09
    
Glad to hear it worked! I'm not so sure about an egg working very well in this situation, unless you do as suggested below and essentially make patties/meatballs. –  daniel Oct 13 '10 at 6:22
    
I'm going to try this again at some indeterminate point in the future using an hour-long reduction and soy lecithin, which I've recently been informed is carried by a local health food store. For now, I'll go with this answer. If you don't mind, I'm going to copy the suggestion from your comment into your answer so that I can accept it. –  Aaronut Oct 13 '10 at 14:04
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Looking at the recipe, I would suggest you change it in the following manner:

  • Take ground beef and add to it 1/2 cup bread crumbs and the yolk of one egg and all spices.

  • Break beef into balls equal to the number of cups and brown in a skillet until about half cooked.

  • Place biscuit dough in cups and add a layer of bbq sauce.

  • Place beef inside cups, top with another layer of sauce and cook in oven for 12 minutes

  • Top with cheese and bake for another 3 minutes.

This will give you a dense meatball that will remain moist in the center, surrounded by a thickened bbq sauce that should hold it quite nicely against the biscuit. How well it holds will depend on how thick the sauce was to begin with. Also to have the meatball be less dense add less breadcrumbs.

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This looks good too and I've upvoted it; for this particular meal I was trying to get away from the meatloaf/meatball/hamburger texture, although I don't doubt that it would be much more stable this way. –  Aaronut Oct 13 '10 at 14:07
    
What texture are you trying to achieve? If you want to start from a slurry base like the original, just cooking it down longer should let you get to the non-runny stage, especially if you drain the meat between adding the bbq sauce. –  sarge_smith Oct 13 '10 at 15:56
    
+1 For the method described –  BaffledCook Oct 20 '10 at 22:51
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Last night was Round Two and I wanted to share what actually worked:

  • First of all, I hypothesized that part of the "looseness" was actually being caused by fat, so I added dijon mustard at about a 1:3 ratio with the BBQ sauce. Dijon seems to be a more appropriate flavour match for BBQ sauce than regular yellow mustard, which is why I chose it, but what I was really interested in here was its emulsifying properties.

  • I also added somewhere between 1-2 tbsp (I didn't measure, I tasted) of honey, both to counteract the spiciness of the dijon mustard and to help thicken and bind the other ingredients. Honey is also supposed to be an emulsifier, although I've never used it as such before.

  • Instead of 1 tsp of corn starch as daniel recommended, I used 2 heaping teaspoons of tapioca starch instead, dissolved in as little water as possible to avoid watering down the sauce. I didn't measure the amount of water, I just gradually incorporated more water until the tapioca was fully dissolved. Then I mixed this slurry into the sauce mixture.

  • I used the original 1/2 cup of BBQ sauce in the recipe - so after all the additions I ended up with about 3/4 cup of sauce.

  • I incorporated the sauce in 3 batches, although I probably only needed 2. On the first batch, I added just enough sauce to coat the meat and cheese mix, and noticed that it was actually starting to form a slight crust (great!). The tapioca really pulled its weight here. The second batch was to actually make it into a "filling", and it thickened very quickly.

  • The entire mixture was simmered at medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. By the end of the simmering, the mixture was quite stiff, and some loose fat was starting to collect in the pan. I wiped off this fat instead of re-incorporating it. There was no need for a sieve this time.

What I ended up with after baking was a thick, stiff, but still moist filling, exactly what I was hoping for the first time around. There was just a hint of "crustiness" to it, which I liked, but if anyone else wants to avoid that texture then just don't add the sauce in batches, add it all at once and mix it thoroughly and then turn it straight down to a simmer.

This doesn't end up mealy and dry like a meatball, it still looks, feels, and tastes like a filling. The only concern here would be finding or making a BBQ sauce that doesn't clash too much with mustard, or possibly using a more flavour-neutral emulsifier like xanthan gum. Personally, I just used one of the "bold" store-bought BBQ sauces with a little bit of tang and kick, and that seemed to marry well enough with the dijon on my palate.

P.S. I'd recommend a non-stick pan for this. I did have to gently "scrape" the pan with a wooden spatula a few times to keep everything incorporated. I suspect that using a steel or cast-iron pan might cause some sticking/burning without constant stirring during the reducing phase.

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A bit of beaten egg and some breadcrumbs might work, if you're willing to go for a meatloaf-ish consistency.

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With something like this I would actually think of adding nutritional yeast. If the cheesy taste doesn't alarm your sensibilities (the cheddar would mask it well), nutritional yeast can be a terrific thickening agent for meat dishes. It wont harden up like egg is sometimes wont to do, and it will soak up excess grease from the ground beef.

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This sounds like a muck-up of a short pastry meat pie? Bad idea

The simple fix is less saucy stuff and use flaky pastry instead of biscuit dough. Put a flaky pastry lid on it too to ensure zero leakage

Put the cheese on top of meat mixture, and lid on top of that

The trick is how you eat it so that the filling doesn't leak out. This isn't a cooking problem :-)

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Huh? Where did cookie dough come into this? Anyway, I'm pretty sure I know how to eat it, and if you read the other answers you'll see that it is in fact a cooking problem and one that's solvable. –  Aaronut Nov 13 '10 at 4:17
    
Biscuit dough! Eating a hot meat pie without it spilling is an art! Good pies are somewhat sloppy –  TFD Nov 13 '10 at 6:32
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